Art of the oppressed: Oswaldo Guayasamin

Etched into the building of Ecuador’s Asamblea Nacional (Congress of Ecuador) is the art of acclaimed painter and sculptor Oswaldo Guayasamin. In the panels of his work are different themes ranging from frightening images of starving thin figures seemingly cowering in place to a Nazi style helmet adorned with the letters CIA, as well as quotes from famous figures throughout Ecuadorian history.

Guayasamin was never one to shy away from his  ideals, having traveled Latin America and seen poverty and marginalization for the indigenous classes had made him embrace communist motifs and illustrations of injustice to point to the possibilities of a better future.

“I cried because I didn’t have shoes until I saw a child without feet”–Guayasamin

Huacayñan or “El Camino del Llanto” is Kichwa for the Trail of Tears; this early collection of Guayasamin’s paintings is emblematic of his travels through Latin America and usage of sorrow to highlight injustice. From all across South America, Guayasamin’s travels lead him to witness the sorrow, happiness, identity and tradition of mestizo, indigenous and African cultures.

“De pueblo en pueblo, de ciudad en ciudad fuimos testigos de la más inmensa miseria: pueblos de barro negro, en tierra negra, con niños embarrados de lodo negro; hombres y mujeres con rostros de piel quemada por el frío, donde las lágrimas estaban congeladas por siglos, hasta no saber si eran de sal o eran de piedra.”–Oswaldo Guayasamin
From town to town, from city to city we witnessed the most immense misery: peoples of black mud, on black earth, with children muddied with black mud; men and women with faces of skin burned by the cold, where the tears were frozen for centuries, until they did not know if they were salt or stone.


La Edad de la Ira (The age of anger) is the second era of paintings; for many of this era’s paintings, the art is characterized by haunting cubic expressions inspired by Picasso and dark colors often depicting death reminiscent of Guernica. The theme remains closely intertwined with violence, war and injustice often highlighting the communist artist’s internationalism with dedications to the dead children of the Holocaust, dedications to Spanish Republicans and an homage to Salvador Allende, Victor Jara and Pablo Neruda (all victims of the Pinochet regime).

“La vieja y lejana esperanza de paz es todavía puntal que nos sostiene en nuestra angustia.”–Oswaldo Guayasamin
The old and distant hope of peace is still a point that sustains us in our anguish
Dedicated to the martyrs of Chile

Mientras vivo siempre te recuerdo (While I’m alive I will always remember you) is by far Guayasamin’s least confrontational art. It serves as an homage to all mothers by highlighting the innocence of youth and love between a mother and her children.

“Mi madre era como el pan recién salido del horno. Me dio las dos vidas que tengo. Era y sigue siendo una tierna poesía. Mientras viva siempre te recuerdo.”–Oswaldo Guayasamin
My mother was like bread fresh from the oven. She gave me the two lives I have. It was and still is a tender poetry. As long as I live I will always remember you.


Throughout his career much of his works gained international fame and receiving displays abroad yet little of his legacy remained in his native Ecuador. For this reason his later years were heavily dedicated to creating a space where his works could be displayed for the people of Ecuador. The result was La Capilla del Hombre (The Chapel of Man), a space not so much religious but one where the human suffering of Latin America and the world could be pondered upon through the works that he left behind.

Guayasamin’s artwork stands the test of time with his mural in the Asamblea Nacional remaining as a remarkable affront to  U.S. foreign policy. For his truthfulness the U.S. protested the artist while ignoring the deeply violent and antagonistic history of American meddling in Latin America and support for dictatorships due to economic benefits. Yet the art endures. As if to echo the art, indigenous activist, feminist and communist Dolores Cacuango’s words remain ever firm supplanted over the Ecuadorian Congress Hall, “Somos como la paja de páramo que se arranca y vuelve a crecer.” (We are like the straw of the paramo that is uprooted and grows back.)


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